Pierre Boulez Conducts the New York Philharmonic

Derek Miller

October 14, 2017

This paper was delivered at a symposium on Late Modernism and Expatriatism at Boston College on October 14, 2017. The gathering was organized by Lauren Arrington and sponsored by Boston College’s Center for Irish Programs.

This paper sheds some light on the complicated dynamic between late modernism and institutions. It is the story of what happened when a leading advocate for a still-foreign musical modernism received control over a conservative cultural institution, of what happened when Pierre Boulez conducted the New York Philharmonic. Founded in 1842, the Philharmonic performed Beethoven symphonies, Mozart concerti, and Tchaikovsky ballet suites to an audience of primarily wealthy, and often elderly, New Yorkers. In 1969, the decade-long directorship of Leonard Bernstein, the whiz kid of American music, came to a close. Bernstein had done much to revitalize the Philharmonic, but in tune with the cutting edge of modern music—and with the musical lineage that inspired the contemporary musical avant-garde—Bernstein was not. For instance, musicologist Benjamin Piekut, studying a series of Bernstein-led avant-garde concerts, found an orchestra and its leader approaching music by Iannis Xenakis and John Cage with more than a little mockery.1 Given the orchestra’s seemingly hard-wired aversion to modernist music and its progeny, the conductor chosen to replace Bernstein surprised many observers.

Pierre Boulez came to the music world’s attention as the enfant terrible of late modernist music. Born in France, though resident in Germany since the 1960s, Boulez quickly developed a reputation as a superb composer and the leading intellectual of post-war modernist music. Both as a foreigner and as a founder and symbol of that apex of musical modernism known as total serialism, Boulez was as far from Bernstein, spiritually and aesthetically, as the Philharmonic could get. What’s more, a mere three months before his appointment, Boulez had derided the American music scene to The New York Times and denied any interest in a job with the orchestra. “The circumstances of directing the New York Philharmonic,” he said, “are such that you are the prisoner of a frame.”2

Yet in June, 1969, the New York Philharmonic triumphantly announced a three-year contract with its newest prisoner, Pierre Boulez, beginning in the 1971–72 season. He ultimately led the Philharmonic through six seasons, a tenure judged, by many observers, as an overall success. But what, precisely, did Boulez do at the Philharmonic? How did he make a space for the late modernist music of which he was exemplar and champion and for the predecessors in early modernism whose work the Philharmonic played little? How did the institution adapt to these pressures while also keeping faith with its most important supporters, its subscribers? And how did he balance his admiration for the European avant garde against an institution of great symbolic importance within the American musical scene? To answer those questions, I’m going to show you today four different ways of thinking about precisely what Boulez did while at the New York Philharmonic. Drawing from the New York Philharmonic’s [open source database](https://github.com/nyphilarchive/PerformanceHistory) of their programs, I’m going to discuss concert types, composer popularity, the familiarity of works, and composer nationalities.

Concert Types

To start, let’s look at the kinds of concerts the Philharmonic played under Boulez. When he took over in 1971, the Philharmonic played a few basic kinds of concerts, which broke down like Figure 1 during Bernstein’s music directorship, and Figure 2 during Boulez’s.

Figure 1. Bernstein Concert Types
Figure 2. Boulez Concert Types

The most obvious difference is the expansion of the ‘Other’ category under Boulez. During Bernstein’s tenure, the Subscription, Tour, Promenade, and Parks concerts made up ninety percent of the programming. For Boulez, they make up around 85%. The remaining five percent fell into the ‘Other’ category, which includes Boulez’s two famous innovations in the Philharmonic’s formatting: the Prospective Encounters series and the Rug Concerts.

Played always outside the Philharmonic’s main hall, usually by smaller configurations of the orchestra, Prospective Encounters were Boulez’s venue for hearing music being written right now. All but 3 of the 58 works played at those concerts were Philharmonic premieres, and a number were world premieres. Rug Concerts were programmatically more like subscription concerts, but reconfigured the physical relationship between musicians and audience and, like the Prospective Encounters, used sub-groups of the orchestra. Both formats received critical praise for their innovation and helped to combat the orchestra’s reputation as a stodgy, old-person’s club.

But both series also had a limited reach. The programs for Prospective Encounters concerts and Rug Concerts alike were performed only once. (Subscription programs, by contrast, are played at four concerts each.) Together, the seventeen Prospective Encounters and thirty Rug Concerts amounted to a mere 4% of the concerts played during Boulez’s directorship. By comparison, in that same period, the Philharmonic played ninety Promenade concerts, the summer light classical series conducted by Andre Kostelanetz, amounting to over 7.5% percent of the orchestra’s performances. (Interestingly, the physical layout of the Rug Concerts was inspired by the Promenades’ transformation of Philharmonic Hall.3) The Prospective Encounters and Rug Concerts, which account for nearly the whole difference between Bernstein’s and Boulez’s programming, thus did not reshape what the Philharmonic was, fundamentally, doing.

We can also look at how much Boulez himself conducted the orchestra and in what venues. Figure 3 is a season-by-season bar chart of concerts (absolute numbers this time, rather than percentages), this time further divided into those concerts conducted by the music director and those concerts conducted by others.4

Figure 3. Concert Types by Conductor
Three points here. First, Bernstein conducted a lot more concerts, particularly in his first season, than Boulez did. Second, Boulez did relatively little touring with the orchestra. Third, he led zero Young People’s Concerts, the program in which Bernstein had made his biggest mark. Statistically, the difference in Bernstein’s and Boulez’s approach to the orchestra looked like Table 1, showing the percent of concerts of each type lead by the music director.

Table 1
Concert Type Bernstein Boulez
Subscription Season 42% (519/1223) 38% (254/667)
Tour/Runout 83% (191/229) 33% (43/129)
Stadium/Parks 1.5% (3/203) 15% (11/73)
Promenade 0% (0/121) 0% (0/90)
Young People’s 56% (43/77) 0% (0/38)
Student 9% (3/34) 11% (4/35)
Other 37.5% (27/72) 55% (63/115)

All of Boulez’s growth in his impact with the orchestra was in the expansion of “Other” concerts and his regular leadership of them. Otherwise, he stepped back compared to Bernstein, notable particularly in Boulez’s limited touring with the orchestra. In short, despite introducing some new and successful concert formats, the Philharmonic under Boulez remained a subscription orchestra that ran its popular music series, summer free concerts, and tours with minimal disruption from its modernist leader.

Composers Featured

Given Boulez’s limited influence on how and for whom the Philharmonic played, his influence might be audible in what the orchestra played. Let’s consider, then, Boulez’s repertoire. One of the major expectations when Boulez took over the orchestra was that he would bring more variety to the orchestra’s programs. As the Philharmonic’s Annual Report at the end of his first season triumphantly summarized, the year “was one of innovation, attempting [...] to freshen the repertoire.”5 But Boulez also quickly earned a reputation for being too innovative, with concerts that inspired walk-outs and angry letters from subscribers. The Annual Report argued this was a public relations, rather than a repertoire, problem: “The very favorable press reaction to Mr. Boulez’s programming perhaps overemphasized the innovative aspects of the season and produced worry on the part of some subscribers. The actual programs themselves did not warrant the concern generated by the press.”6 So, which is it? Did the Philharmonic become a rag-and-bone shop of musical curiosities? Or did it remain a museum of Romantic musical greatness?

Let’s look first at composer popularity, with help from visualizations inspired by the work of John and Kate Mueller.7

Figure 4. Composer Frequency, Boulez Directorship
Figure 4 plots the cumulative frequency of composers’ works during Boulez’s music directorship. Each time a conductor gave a downbeat for a work by Mozart, I added a tally to the ‘Mozart’ column; then I divided each composer’s total by the sum of all the composers’ tallies. At the bottom are the most popular composers: Mozart and Stravinsky, accounting for around seven and six percent of works performed, respectively. Next comes Beethoven at five percent, Ravel and Tchaikovsky at four percent each. Cumulatively—with a mere five composers—we’ve accounted for a full quarter of all works the Philharmonic played from the 1971 through the 1976 seasons.

Compare the same graph for Bernstein’s tenure (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Composer Frequency, Bernstein Directorship
Here, seven composers account for a quarter of the works performed. We can thus say immediately that Boulez, while he may have shifted the balance among some composers in the repertoire, did not reverse the inequalities of the symphony orchestra model: a few composers remained heavily represented, with a large mass of composers performed at merely a single concert or concert series.

Let’s get a better look at the composers Boulez privileged by re-sorting this data and plotting each composer individually in Figure 6, with the x axis representing Bernstein’s tenure and the y axis, Boulez’s tenure. (Because an orchestra formulates repertoire most directly through its subscription programming, I’ve included only subscription concerts for the following graphs. And for visual clarity, I’ve plotted everything on a log scale and included only composers measuring at one percent frequency or higher.)

Figure 6. Composer Frequency, Bernstein v. Boulez
The line represents where both conductors performed a composer’s works at the same rate. Near that line we find names such as Schumann, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky. Some composers, though, were much more associated with one director or another. For example, Beethoven and Mozart, though each in the top echelons under both directors, swapped places. Bernstein’s directorship favored Brahms, Mahler, Berlioz, and Sibelius, along with Shostakovich and the Americans Barber and Ives. (Although, interestingly, Ives was the composer Boulez conducted most at non-subscription concerts.) Boulez’s subscription programs featured Stravinsky, Haydn, Ravel, and Bartók; subscribers heard more Liszt and Weber.

We can understand Boulez’s own tastes even better if we divide his tenure into only the subscription concerts led by Boulez and only those led by other conductors.

Figure 7. Composer Frequency, Boulez v. Guest Conductors
Figure 7 is the same graph, but for Boulez’s directorship only, with Boulez-led subscription concerts on the x axis and all other subscription concerts on the y axis. Note, first, Tchaikovsky: Boulez literally never conducted Tchaikovsky, so Tchaikovsky’s continued presence in the repertoire during Boulez’s tenure shows us where the orchestra, despite the preferences of its music director, carried on doing what pleased its audience. Weber and Bruckner, too, were entirely creatures of other conductors.

Who, then, did Boulez conduct? We find some Romantic names on his side of the line: Schumann, Wagner, Mahler. Boulez conducted a surprising amount of Bach for subscribers. Among the core Boulez composers, notice, too, the so-called Second Viennese School. The Second Viennese School—that’s Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg—are important because they, and particularly their serial compositions, represent the origins of the modernist music that the New York Philharmonic mostly avoided. Boulez had come to New York change that. He told journalist Joan Peyser in the Times interview mentioned earlier that “The job of a conductor is to bring an audience to realize it’s as important to hear Berg as to hear Mahler.”8 And he did conduct Berg about as often as Mahler. But the most strongly Boulez-associated composers are not those of the Second Viennese School. Rather, the key Boulez composers in his subscription programs were Ravel, Stravinsky, and Bartók—each modern in his own way, but none as aurally foreign as the Austrians with their tone rows. To the extent, then, that Boulez “freshened” the repertoire, he did so not primarily with the core trio of modernism, the Second Viennese School, whose musical logic undergirded Boulez’s own wing of the contemporary musical field, but with a far more palatable trio of composers. The Annual Report, then, was not wrong: Boulez’s subscription programs were far less innovative than his reputation suggested.

Familiarity and Novelty

In later interviews about his conducting, Boulez noted that, even when conducting familiar composers, he always aimed to play unfamiliar works. “When I arrived in New York,” he told one interviewer, “I had them check back through several decades [...] in the standard repertoire, to find out what had not been played.” He found, he said, “enormous gaps.”9 A fresher repertoire would thus feature not only a different coterie of composers, but also unusual works by familiar composers. So, another question: when were the works that Boulez conducted last heard at the Philharmonic?

Figure 8 is a box-and-whisker plot, giving the distribution of the number of years since a work was last performed in each of Bernstein’s and Boulez’s subscription seasons. (I’ve excluded premieres.)

Figure 8. Work Familiarity, Bernstein and Boulez
Two things are clear from this graph. In Bernstein’s most repetitive season, 1958-1959, a full quarter of the subscription works had been performed in the previous season. Boulez always did better than that, and sometimes significantly better. Works at Boulez’s concerts were a year or two older, overall, than those played by Bernstein. Second, Boulez’s mean is significantly higher than Bernstein’s, particularly in his first three seasons. Boulez’s programs, in other words, contained fewer works heard very recently and a larger set of works not heard in a long time.

Interestingly, however, Boulez’s own conducting was not as big a factor in this unfamiliarity as one might think. Figure 9 plots just Boulez’s seasons, divided between concerts he conducted (the red boxes) and concerts others led (black boxes).

Figure 9. Work Familiarity, Boulez and Guest Conductors
Only in 1972 does Boulez’s own repertoire clearly beat those of other conductors in terms of its relative novelty. In other seasons, he actually leads a more familiar repertoire, among non-premieres, than do guest artists. Some of that is certainly due to Boulez’s repeating his own repertoire: in his second season, he repeated no works from his first season, but in his final season a full twenty-three percent of the works he conducted for subscribers they had already heard under his baton.

We can add premieres—defined broadly as any work, new or old, never before played by the Philharmonic—to our observations, this time including all concerts. Figure 10 provides a tally of premieres as a percent of total works performed during Bernstein and Boulez’s tenures.

Figure 10. Premieres, Bernstein and Boulez
As you can see, although Boulez’s final season was the orchestra’s most novel since 1958, his overall numbers don’t differ significantly from Bernstein’s. Again, we can refine the data to focus only on concerts conducted by one of the two music directors (Figure 11).
Figure 11. Premieres, Bernstein and Boulez, Music Directors’ Concerts
And here you see that Boulez had three seasons in which over a third of the works he conducted were premieres, while Bernstein never reached that level. Indeed, Boulez’s minimum premiere percent was around Bernstein’s maximum. Boulez’s subscription concerts, then, absolutely programmed more unfamiliar work than Bernstein’s, and he premiered more work than his predecessor. But Boulez himself was not the sole, or in some seasons even the primary, conductor for such unfamiliar work.


Finally, a few words about the nationality of the music Boulez selected. The New York Philharmonic was and is a major voice for American classical music. Bernstein, as the orchestra’s first American music director, claimed a natural affinity with his countrymens’ music, with around 29% of the 500 works he conducted at the Philharmonic composed by an American. The avant garde that Boulez admired, however, was almost uniformly not American. Boulez disclaimed any interest in worrying over a composer’s nationality. “I am always fighting the nationalistic point of view,” he told the Times.10 But it was hard not to hear his plea against national favoritism as an excuse for conducting European music.

However, ignoring American composers simply wasn’t an option for Boulez when helming the Philharmonic. He personally conducted 84 works by American composers. That comes to 25% of the works he conducted, almost keeping pace with Bernstein’s numbers. Figure 12 breaks down composer nationalities during Boulez’s tenure.

Figure 12. Composer Nationalities, Boulez Tenure
The numbers are generally comparable to Bernstein’s, except when we compare subscription concerts conducted by the two men (Figure 13).
Figure 13. Composer Nationalities, Bernstein and Boulez Subscription Concerts
Then we see clearly where Boulez preferred the German and Austrian—along with the French—repertoire to the American.

One final note on composer nationalities, with a gesture towards the issue of expatriatism: Boulez’s favorite American composer was—Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, of course, was born in Russia, worked in Switzerland, then lived for two decades in Paris. But he had become an American citizen after leaving Europe in 1939. If we recalculate Boulez’s subscription programs and assign Stravinsky to Russia, his native land, American-born composers drop down to fourth place in Boulez’s hierarchy (Figure 14).

Figure 14. Composer Nationalities, Boulez Subscription Concerts, Stravinsky as Russian or American
Moreover, the Stravinsky that Boulez lionized at the Philharmonic was almost strictly not the American Stravinsky. Rather, Boulez focused on the European Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring and Petrushka (Figure 15).
Figure 15. Performances of Stravinsky’s Compositions by Composition Year, Boulez Tenure
During Boulez’s tenure other conductors ventured farther into Stravinsky’s American period. But Boulez conducted only two works that Stravinsky composed in the United States, and one of them was a revised work from 1920. So, in passing, I want to underline that the music world’s reception of music by modernist expatriates such as Stravinsky (and another Boulez musical father, Arnold Schoenberg), could all but ignore the new sounds that American life opened up for them. The Stravinsky of Boulez’s New York Philharmonic programs may have been literally American, but he was musically Russian and French.


Thus ends a brief overview of some of what the data tell us about Pierre Boulez’s attempts to modernize the New York Philharmonic. I’ve left out, however, many important influences on Boulez’s tenure, influences that don’t show up in a database of concert programs. These include: Boulez’s concurrent music directorship of the BBC Orchestra; a musicians’ strike in 1973; the renovation of Avery Fisher Hall in 1976; the American bicentennial in the same year; festivals devoted to contemporary music and to composers such as Charles Ives; a shrinking subscriber base, filled in by non-subscriber purchases. And even the data I have described do not account for such factors as the duration of various works, or that some composers simply wrote fewer works, meaning the orchestra had less of their music to play.

Nevertheless, the picture we have now is not, I think, entirely without merit. What, then, can we say about Pierre Boulez’s time leading the New York Philharmonic? What happened when the champion of the avant garde and worshipper of Webern took over Leonard Bernstein’s orchestra? On the one hand, Boulez really did try to build a new musical culture, particularly around the Prospective Encounters and Rug Concerts. And his subscription programming, particularly under his own baton, emphasized a different set of composers than his predecessor had. The specific modernist heritage that Boulez famously championed, however, did not loom as large in his programming as one might think. And, if we look at a network of music directors and their subscription programs from the 1911 through 1976 seasons (Figure 16), we find Boulez comfortably nestled among his peers.

Figure 16. Network Graph of Music Directors and Composers
More importantly, these numbers reannounce the limits of any cultural history focused on novelty and innovation. Here’s a world-famous trouble-maker, come to stir up an old institution and make it new. But the institution, while giving him some room to express himself, mostly carries on its lumbering way, doing more or less what it had been doing for the past hundred and thirty years. It’s a reminder, then, that the story of modernism and its afterlives is a story more about changes at the margins of culture than at the center. Schoenberg may be important, but what orchestra audiences really want to hear is Tchaikovsky.

1. Benjamin Piekut, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant Garde and Its Limits (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Ch. 1.

2. Joan Peyser, “A Fighter from Way Back,” The New York Times, March 9, 1969.

3. John Canarina, The New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel (Amadeus Press, 2010), p. 83

4. Note: Bernstein took a sabbatical in the 1964–1965 season, so I’ve left it off these charts.

5. New York Philharmonic, “Confidential Annual Report to the Board of Directors for the Fiscal Year Ending August 31, 1972,” p. 1, available at archives.nyphil.org.

6. Annual Report, 1971–72, p. 1.

7. John H. Mueller, The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste (Indiana University Press, 1951).

8. Peyser, “A Fighter from Way Back.”

9. Jean Vermeil, Conversations with Boulez: Thoughts on Conducting, trans. Camille Naish (Amadeus Press, 2003), p. 53

10. Peyser, “A Fighter from Way Back.”